The Wild Bunch | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

January 26, 2012 News » Cover Story

The Wild Bunch 

Public lands office goes in guns blazing, hiring cronies and sparing no taxpayer expense fighting the feds

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Who’s the Boss?
Harja’s former boss Mower argues that, despite ignoring legislative auditors in 2009, the PLPCO office did complete its major goal of making sure legal notices were filed on time for the roads. The work of the office, he says, can’t necessarily be measured by standard performance metrics.

“Outcomes for the office are based on actions proposed by outside parties and ebb and flow with the nature and timing of those actions,” Mower writes. “These actions are tied to the substance of each individual action and are not suitable for widget-based metrics.”

But the goal of filing on 18,784 roads, Mower says, was an objective put to the office by legislative committees and the Constitutional Defense Council. The CDC, which provides the lion’s share of PLPCO’s funding, was created by the Legislature in 1994 and is comprised of the governor, members of the Legislature, county commissioners and different agency heads.

“The [filing] goal represented a huge task for the team, and the team was consistently reminded of the goal throughout 2011,” Mower writes.

But this goal was not clear to the PLPCO staff as a whole, according to a consultant’s report completed for the office in August 2011 that examined the office’s workings. Consultant Jill Carter reported that “there have been no performance-related goals and objectives written for employees.” Carter also reported PLPCO staff as saying that “John [Harja] expects people to be self starters but he doesn’t very often provide people with direction, as a result, not all staff appear to be busy and engaged in their work.”

Regardless of the dysfunction in the office, the Legislature may have spared the office from being mothballed in 2011 to ensure the office met the state’s deadline to sue the United States and not waste the work they had already done.

In 2000, the state had filed a preliminary document with the federal government about the rural roads. This set off a 12-year statute of limitations—the PLPCO office had to meet its 2011 filing deadline or face the possibility that the state might not be able to file at all.

The CDC created a fund in the early 2000s dedicated solely to fund the RS2477 roads battle and has had an even greater stake in making sure the office made its deadline. The CDC provides for roughly two-thirds of the office’s funding, according to Harja, and receives its money from royalties off of mineral leases from development in the state-trust lands.

The fact that the office receives most of its funding from development royalties is cause for concern from environmentalists, who question how the office can also independently weigh in on disputes on proposed developments, since developments fund the office.

Mower says the office still coordinates with other agencies and that PLPCO has brokered fair compromises on contentious issues in the past, such as a plan to protect 10,000-year-old cave art near Nine Mile Canyon while still allowing nearby natural-gas development.

Harja says the money from the CDC is for the RS2477 project and, therefore, there isn’t a conflict. “That money from development [royalties] is used to maintain our transportation network,” Harja says.

But members of the Legislature, as well as the CDC, are well aware of what those roads could do for development and control of the lands. At the January 2011 committee hearing where Harja sidestepped his office’s elimination, CDC member and appropriations-committee member Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, told the committee too much had been invested in the office to stop now. Noel referred to a conversation he once had with a SUWA member and other environmentalists who conceded that “if there is a road in a wilderness area, it’s not a wilderness area,” Noel said.

“We are going to put hundreds, if not thousands, of roads on the book for the state of Utah for our kids, and we don’t have to protect anything because they will be our roads,” Noel said. “To stop now would be huge mistake.”

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While the PLPCO office under Harja has been pushing toward a fateful showdown with the federal government, it seems that after spending more than $8 million since 2008—not counting the $2.4 million in accessible reserve funds—the overwhelming majority of the 18,784 claims could be dismissed if Benson’s ruling in the Emery County case sets a precedent. The federal government hasn’t sought to close off or shut down most of the roads—probably because they never knew they existed.

The tug-of-war for land will continue under PLPCO’s new director, former national BLM director Kathleen Clarke, and the state will continue to fight for the right to develop lands and have better control over them as a means of adding more revenue to the state and flexing sovereignty in the face of brutish federal authorities.

With Clarke as the new head, though, taxpayers won’t know yet if she will be the first director in the office’s history to institute the performance and accountability measures suggested by legislative auditors. But what is certain is that bills will stack up—in 2011, the roads program was one of the few to get new funding.

“Why you would spend that kind of money when you’ve got 45 kids in a classroom defies good common sense,” McIntosh says. “But that’s how they decided to prioritize their resources.”

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